The 15th Anniversary of The Old 97's Too Far to Care and Rhett Miller's Solo Album: Does Anyone Still Care?
Fifteen years ago this month, the Old 97's released their major label debut, Too Far to Care. Last week, frontman Rhett Miller released his latest solo record, The Dreamer. Darryl Smyers and Eric Grubbs sat down and talked about the legacy of Too Far to Care, and whether or not it's a bigger deal than anything Miller has done as a solo artist. Whether or not you agree with these codgers, Rhett Miller plays a free show at Good Records tonight at 6 p.m.
Eric Grubbs: Audra asked me about what would people care more about, that it's been 15 years since Too Far to Care came out or Rhett's new solo record. I think the legacy of Too Far to Care is bigger than any solo record that he's put out. Your thoughts, hater?
Darryl Smyers: I'm not the hater! I've known both Rhett and Murry [Hammond] too long, Murry about five to ten years longer than Rhett. It depends how good this solo record will be. If it follows in the footsteps of The Instigator and The Believer, then no one will care. If it goes back to some of the things he's been writing for the last few Old 97's records, then people have seemed to embrace that, even after Too Far to Care, the band distanced themselves from the kind of alt-country they're magically back playing these days.
EG: Since you know the guys and have seen them many times over the years, what was the response around here when the band signed to Elektra?
DS: When the record came out, it was overwhelming. Even for me, because I heard Hitchhike to Rhome, their first album that was independently released, when Murry played the tape for me of what was going to be the finished tracks, I thought he was joking. I said, "That's it?" It lacked a lot of the power I had seen them display live. When Hitchhike to Rhome came out, I thought it was a very flat-sounding record and I didn't really like some of the songwriting on that one, although there are a lot of people who love that record. But Too Far to Care, the production values were so stepped up.
My first time hearing any of the songs was Clay Pigeons with Janeane Garofalo and Joaquin Phoenix. The opening credits feature "Timebomb." I got goosebumps because that song was so good. Rhett's songwriting was the best I think it ever was. And there are some little hidden tracks like "House That Used to Be," which is one of my favorite Old 97's songs. They were already pushing the whole alt-country thing, but it was like alt-country meets Brian Eno because all the instrumentation was in the same spot, like what Eno likes to do with his production with U2. I always told them, "That's a great song." I was really expecting them to kind of expand on that, almost ambient alt-country, which I think is a brave move as opposed to just listening to the idiots at Elektra who said, "Ohhhhh, you guys are a big alt-country band and now we can make you a big alt-country/pop band."
And then the band embraced that and then it got ridiculous. People were hassling Rhett when he decided to not wear his glasses anymore and just wear contacts. That was supposedly a part of his "sell-out." With Too Far, I remember the Observer went crazy. And that was even before I was freelancing. All the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. Had to be one of the biggest bands in Dallas.
EG: I remember reading about the band in Guitar World, of all places, in a story about the reality of the post-Alternative Nation signing binge. Being a suburban Houston kid, I saw them kick off Buzzfest with "Streets of Where I'm From." It was too country for my tastes. Maybe that's why I like Fight Songs. That's not to say I'm an idiot; I can handle country music to an extent before it gets annoying. I mean, the country twang is still a little prevalent on Fight Songs.
DS: Too Far to Care was such a whole different thing than what they had done. Wreck Your Life is a good record on Bloodshot, but on Bloodshot, they had to fit the stereotype, which is very hardcore. Like I said, I just loved the production on Too Far. It was produced by the same guy who produced the last Replacements album, Matt Wallace. From song to song, I think it's their best one. I think some of it is the least country. You start out with "Timebomb," "Barrier Reef," "Salome," one of Murry's best songs, "W. TX Teardrops," and then "Melt Show," which is a searing rock song. And then "House That Used to Be" and "Four Leaf Clover" with Exene from X. That's what they ended their sets with. Hell, they still might end their sets with that.
And that's one of the things that kind of drove me away initially. Since I knew Murry so well, went to high school with him, I'd go to almost every show. I saw them go from playing to ten people to a hundred to a thousand within a year, within five months before the release and the five months after. But the setlists were always the same. When Rhett and Murry would do the Ranchero Brothers, they would mix it up, but when the Old 97's would play, they'd play the same 15, 20 songs almost every show. Even when I go now, they'll mix in some of the later stuff, but you still got a lot of the same material. I guess that's what they think are their best songs.
EG: When I was in college, the people that were really into Old 97's were in the fraternity/sorority crowd, whereas the people working at the campus radio station, like me, listened to their new records with some trepidation. What distanced you from going to shows?
DS: That's true. They did get that SMU crowd and it was weird because it wasn't an alt-country crowd at all. Rhett and Murry had been in several bands together. When they heard Nirvana, they decided to form a band called Rhett's Exploding where they were doing Nirvana-ish grunge music. People heard that band and knew Rhett's folky stuff he had done in coffee shops around town. Murry had been in a punk band called Mindless Thrash, for God's sake. So when the Old 97's popped up, I thought it was the new costume these guys were wearing, especially Rhett. Murry has always been into hardcore country, all his life, but not for Rhett. I knew people who were like, "Oh, it's just a gimmick." And it turned out it really wasn't because the shows were really good.
I don't know what it was about that time because there was that battle with Whiskeytown, which was just bizarre. It ended up with Ryan Adams up on stage at Trees wondering where the "Mold 97's" were. People were booing and chuckling. There's a story that Murry told me on the Too Far to Care tour where they were invited to play Austin City Limits, not as a solo group, but with Whiskeytown. The story goes that Rhett went backstage and Ryan Adams was drinking a bottle of whiskey and Rhett asked him for some and Ryan told him to get the fuck out of the dressing room. Another thing about it: Elektra did a great job. They may have screwed them later on, but on that album, they were on Letterman, Leno. They were everywhere, but then you could still walk the streets of Dallas and say, "Hey, do you know who the Old 97's are?" And people would say, "Who?" It wasn't like the kind of name recognition you had with The Toadies or Edie Brickell, or Pantera. It was different, kinda cool and underground, but then the crowds would be a lot of SMU frat guys. It was such a weird mix. Maybe that's why it was never as successful as the record company or the band wanted. It seemed to come crashing down pretty fast. When did Rhett's first solo album come out? We don't count Mythologies. The real one, The Instigator: 2002?